A Breakdown of the “F” Word
No, I’m not talking about that “F” word. However, to some, the word ‘feminism’ might be just as vulgar, which is why I have taken it upon myself to give you the 411 on all things feminism, including the different types and their effectivenesses. If I haven’t scared you away yet, I only ask that you remove all your biases and preconceived notions regarding this word from your mind before you continue reading.
The history of feminism is long and extensive, and it surely didn’t just sprout from the Western world. Nonetheless, I’m going to focus this piece on feminist movements within the United States.
Now let’s get down to business.
The most common thing I hear from those who look down at any movement trying to advance women’s rights is: “This isn’t the 1900’s; women have equal rights. Let it go.”
Sure, we love to throw around the passing of the 19th Amendment in 1920, which granted [some] women the right to vote – but we always fail to mention that it wasn’t an all-inclusive win for the entire gender. And anything that doesn’t benefit all women is not a victory. The suffrage movement was a result of first-wave feminism but it advanced only White, middle- and upper-class American women. Voting rights for women of color were only granted in 1960 – that’s 90 years after the 15th Amendment was ratified and 40 years after the 19th Amendment came about.
This moment in history lead to one of the biggest misconceptions of our time; the idea that all women are on the same level and are treated equally (i.e: face the same struggles). This type of feminism can be called “White feminism,” and it’s still relatively dominant today.
Note: this doesn’t mean every White feminist agrees with White feminism. It means there are privileged women out there that are only concerned with expanding and flaunting their own privileges. They constantly exclude women of color, women with disabilities, women of different sexual orientations, and women of religious minorities from their movements and agendas.
White feminism is extremely toxic because it sets the precedent for the struggles of women. Meaning, while White feminism works to end the wage gap between men and women, it fails to address the fact that women of color also face the struggle of being paid less than white women.
Another example of the toxicity of White feminism is when White feminists meddle in the lives of marginalized women and pull out the “rescue” card. For example, believing they are doing Muslim women a favor by encouraging them to take off their “oppressive” headscarves (hijabs). These ‘feminists’ fail to realize that they’re taking away a woman’s choice to wear the hijab entirely. Key word: choice.
Essentially, White feminists believe their struggles as privileged women are the be-all and end-all. They are dismissive of the struggles of minority women because they think their experience with the patriarchy is the only experience.
Moving along in the timeline, second-wave feminism between the 1960’s and 1980’s became more centered on breaking the status quo and advancing toward more cultural rights for women. Still fixated on the experiences of White, privileged women, it sparked the arrival of third-wave feminism in the 1990’s. This wave highlighted the idea of an intersectional feminist movement and often criticized the failures of the second-wave.
Kimberlé Crenshaw, civil rights advocate and professor at Columbia Law School, coined the term ‘intersectional feminist theory’ in 1989 - but that doesn’t mean the idea didn’t exist before. It was actually the basis of Black feminism in the 1960’s, which was born as a response to racism in other so-called feminist movements.
Intersectional feminism focuses on the overlap of identities and systemic oppression, including sexism, racism, classism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and homophobia. This feminist movement posits equality and social justice will only be reached if 1) the movement fights for every single person affected by these oppressive structures, and 2) includes the experiences of all marginalized communities.
Intersectional feminism is absolutely necessary if we wish to truly advance against patriarchal structures and misogyny. As Audre Lorde once said, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”
Keep this inclusive mentality in mind the next time you criticize, study, or embody any feminist movements. The term ‘feminism’ can sometimes have negative connotations attached to it for the reasons mentioned above. However, that’s all the more reason for us to demystify the term and push for a truly all-inclusive movement that works to end misogyny and discrimination everywhere. Do not fear the word. And remember, it’s not feminism if it’s only fighting for one group of women - that my friends, falls under the term “absurdity.”